Nicknames are not my thing. I grew up in the land of the diminutive; my dad still has a 64-year old neighbor who answers to Ronnie. I think true nicknames, which I define as what you’re called and answer to regardless of its relationship to your given name, must be an Ivy League, WASP-y thing.
I suppose such a blanket statement requires some evidence. I didn’t encounter nicknames as described above until I went to college. My roommate’s family, 6 kids and 2 parents, had 11 names between them. None of the males answered to the name on their driver license. My in-laws ply a variation: 3 generations of males with the same name and so each bears a unique, everyday moniker. Did I mention both these families have a direct line back to The Mayflower?
The New Yorker crew carries on this tradition. In fact, it’s there from the outset with ‘Joe’ Liebling and ‘Andy’ White. Currently we have ‘Sandy’ Frazier and, our subject today, ‘Bud’ Trillin. At least 3 of these 4 attended an Ivy. That’s the evidence, thin and circumstantial.
Since it’s almost impossible to ‘review’ Trillinin the traditional sense consider this a retrospective appreciation. My first encounter with Bud was Third Helpings, the final installment of what came to be known as The Tummy Trilogy. A bright yellow paperback with a black and white photo of a schlub in a Lou Grant hat, arms laden with bread and other comestibles, the book didn’t set high expectations. Was I ever wrong.
Trillin is a master of pulling off the hardest thing a writer can attempt: being funny. Think about this for a minute. On a sitcom or SNL writers bring their work to a team. The jokes are read aloud, polished and, most importantly, delivered by an actor with a particular style and sense of timing. Trillin sits alone and crafts it in his head; the joke is received in yours. Total disntermediation as the MBAs would say.
There are a couple of reasons Trillin succeeds. First and foremost, he’s willing to be the butt of the joke. If a ridiculous statement is made, most likely the author is making it. Then there are the alter egos. They serve the purpose of saying even more absurd things. Plus, there are the hangers-on, a motley crew serving as foils or Greek chorus, that are drawn right from the Mike Royko playbook–Slats Grobnik, meet Fats Goldberg. The Trillin family serve, individually and collectively, as the straight women throughout.
Here’s the best part: Trillin isn’t just P.G. Wodehouse with American-sized appetites and a fixation on the next meal. The food writing is great: mouth-wateringly informative and funny. Bud is a true craftsman of the written word. His first book, An Education in Georgia, tells of the integration of the University of Georgia through the prism of the black youths making this history. He dabbles in politics as a regular in The Nation and a syndicated columnist as well. He’s done personal memoirs about a classmate, his father and wife that were quite touching. And he does long-form reportage, much of it on murder, evidently a source of fascination. See his book Killings for a bunch of the latter.
So what do you get with Family Man? Mostly the humour and the family. At this point in the journey it’s like a visit with old friends. Sure, we’ve heard some of this before. Maybe all of it. But who cares? Better to spend a few hours enjoying yourself than suffering through something good for you but painful.
As my mom would say, life’s too short.